Planning for the Past

botany tram

“From Bondi to the Opera House”, by Budd and Wilson








(1) Background

In November 2006, the NSW Government categorically ruled out building a light rail system in Sydney’s CBD, on the grounds (inter alia) that:

“light rail would only take about 20% of the buses off the streets of our city”;

“light rail would rely on the transfer of significant numbers of bus passengers at the CBD periphery to the light rail system – patronage studies have shown that commuters are reluctant to use public transport once an interchange is imposed”;

“surveys suggest that up to as many as 89% of bus commuters want a direct trip into and out of the city, not an interchange onto another transport mode”; and that:

“the lead time and construction requirements to implement a light rail system are significant, disruptive and costly”.

Six years later, in December 2012, a different  NSW State Government announced that it “will  deliver … a light rail route from Circular Quay  to Kingsford and Randwick”, at a cost of $1600 million. The project comprises 3km of CBD track  along George Street between Circular Quay and  Central Station, plus 9km of track heading SE  from Central Station through Moore Park with branches to Randwick and Kingsford.

The George Street part of this project is  designed to reduce the number of buses in the  CBD, whilst the SE Light Rail system will principally serve the University of New South Wales’ Kensington campus.

The proposed system will run 45-metre, 50-tonne  trams along “dedicated corridors” which will use about 4km of existing and/or parkland reservations. They will require the removal of between one and three existing vehicle lanes to  construct the remaining 5km of dedicated corridors through Kensington, Kingsford, Randwick and Surry Hills.  

The University of New South Wales is currently served by multiple bus services – see

The biggest single share of student traffic to UNSW is currently carried by the 891 express bus service from Central Station via dedicated bus lanes along Albion St, Flinders St, Anzac Parade et al. Fares are $2.88 (full) or $1.44 (concession) if prepaid as a “MyBus 2 TravelTen”  ticket.

Each bus is about 12.5 metres long and carries  about 45 seated and about 15 standing passengers, depending on model. Buses run at intervals of one minute or less in peak periods, with multiple buses loading and unloading simultaneously. The  bus journey between Central and UNSW takes approximately 16 minutes.

Sydney’s SE Light Rail proposal is a result of  sustained pressure from influential figures at UNSW – notably the Vice Chancellor, Fred Hilmer – to replace these buses with a heavy rail or “Metro”  connection to Central Station and thereby make UNSW more attractive to students.

Light Rail was not generally regarded as a serious contender. For example,

the official UNSW  Development Control Plan states that “Light Rail along Anzac Parade from the City … would directly serve less than 10% of the staff and students already well served by buses” … and  would be “Slower than Metro and not competitive with 891 bus”.
The UNSW 2020 Transport Strategy therefore did not support such a light rail link and instead recommended that additional bus services be introduced to directly connect UNSW with suburbs including Parramatta, Kings Cross, Bondi Beach and the North Shore. _UNSW_Kensington_Campus.pdf

However, when plans announced in 2006 to build a heavy-rail “ANZAC Metro” (running under Anzac Parade between the CBD and Maroubra) were abandoned in 2010, the UNSW withdrew its
objections to light rail.

The light rail proposal would employ a fleet of about 40 articulated trams, each 45 metres long and able to carry about 100 seated and 200 standing passengers. Each tram will weigh over 50 tonnes and will probably cost at least $6 million.

Initial plans to use the traditional tram route along Oxford Street were abandoned due to fears that people would not patronise it, because tram journeys to UNSW would be much slower than the current express bus service. Estimated tram travel time has now been reduced to around 22 minutes by a proposed tramway “shortcut” through Surry Hills, possibly underground but more probably involving the removal of dwellings, parkland, east-west vehicle lanes and a considerable amount of on-street car parking.

Nobody seriously suggests that current bus services are either slow or inadequate (bus travel time is 16 minutes and average waiting time in peak hours is less than 5 minutes) but the hurly-burly at the multiple bus stops outside Central and UNSW is regarded as unsightly. An orderly line of gleaming new trams would look very nice on UNSW marketing brochures.

Various local property developers, politicians and Councils have been delighted to assist in UNSW’s campaign, on the basis that a State-Government-funded and subsidised light rail connection would cost them nothing and might bring some (so far unquantified) benefits to the region.

The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, also appears to have supported the scheme, despite cries of outrage from City of Sydney ratepayers whose homes are threatened by moves to minimise costs by running tracks aboveground through narrow streets and existing parks and residences in Surry Hills. This may be a result of the Lord Mayor’s desire to run battery-powered trams down George Street in the CBD, which is dependent on recharging each tram on a subsequent overhead-powered run between Central and Randwick or Kingsford.

InfrastructureNSW conceded that a SE Light Rail line down Anzac Parade might “offer a better quality travel experience” for the 5-10,000 students and staff who currently travel by bus  between Central Station, UNSW, and the Prince of Wales hospital, but “would not compete on travel time with existing bus services” for most commuters.

Nobody appears to have published any sort of cost-benefit analysis justifying this SE Light Rail line and, despite a statement on the NSW Department of Transport’s website that “The CBD and South East light rail extension was developed in close consultation with councils, business and local communities”, the businesses and residents of Surry Hills were caught completely by surprise by this plan to cut their suburb in half.

Few people outside Surry Hills seem to yet be aware that the “dedicated corridors” described in the proposal will require between one and four vehicle lanes to be permanently removed from streets along about half of the route, including Wansey Road and much of the commercial section of Anzac Parade.

Similar light rail “vanity projects” all over the world (eg Edinburgh, Honolulu, Jerusalem, Malaga/Velez, Ottawa, Portland, San Juan Puerto Rico et al) are causing gridlock and/or bankrupting local  governments. For example, Malaga’s financially disastrous light rail system has been scrapped, and its near-new trams leased at bargain prices to the NSW Government for use on the Dulwich Hill line. The cost of Edinburgh’s new 18.5km light rail system, originally budgeted at £375 million, has blown out to over £1 billion; it replaces a previously profitable bus service but will require at least £45 million per annum in subsidies if/when it is completed. The facts about these and other light rail fiascos are very easily “Googled”.

(2) Cost of building & operating the SE Light Rail:

Construction costs of the 9km SE Light Rail scheme represent $1100 million of the $1600 million specified in the NSW Government’s announcement.   – pp 26 et al

At a 5% discount rate, this represents a financing/opportunity cost of $55 million per annum.

Depreciation, maintenance and operating costs will amount to at least $45 million per annum. The long, heavy, battery-and-overhead-powered trams specified by some of the stakeholders are
rumoured to be fearsomely expensive to maintain. See Note 1, below.

The SE Light Rail system, designed to reduce the demand for buses on a handful of routes between Central, Randwick and Kingsford, is thus likely to cost at least $100 million per annum.

(To put this into perspective, the ENTIRE income of the NSW State Transit Authority in 2011-12 was about $680 million. This represented a total of 220 million bus trips annually. The ENTIRE State Transit Authority bus fleet was valued at about $100 million. See STA 2011-2012 Annual Report)

(3) Loading and unloading rates:

SE Light Rail proponents claim that the trams will carry “up to 9000 passengers per hour”, which appears to be based on running one of these $6 million, 45-metre trams every 2 minutes through an evenly-balanced chain of stations, with two-thirds of passengers standing and with relatively few people embarking or alighting at each stop.

This sort of 2-minute schedule may conceivably be achievable if the proposed light rail system were merely shuttling passengers slowly between destinations along George Street in the CBD.

However, the peak-hour route between Central and UNSW involves loading all tram passengers at one end of the route and unloading them again at the other end. Technically, “dwell times” at Central and UNSW will be significant on this primarily “point to point” section of the light rail system.

There is little possibility of stopping a tram, loading or unloading a full load of 300 passengers, driving this tram away from the loading platform, and replacing it with the next tram, in 2 minutes.

Tram loading and unloading rates at Central and UNSW are in fact unlikely to be significantly faster than the current parallel loading and unloading of multiple buses at their extended kerbside stops. Despite the optimistic claims of some Light Rail proponents, many of the existing buses will still be needed at peak hours.

And, of course, buses will still be needed to transport the majority of UNSW’s 40,000+ students and staff who do not commute via Central Station.

In addition to this, it must be remembered that the George Street section of the light rail system is expected to replace the dozens of incoming bus routes which currently carry passengers past Central  to their destinations in the CBD. Overall, the rush-hour scrimmage at Central as passengers are forced to switch between transport modes to get to or from the CBD and the UNSW is likely to get worse rather than better.

Similarly, claims that trams will replace all the current multiple-bus services ferrying racegoers to and from Randwick Racecourse, and carrying sports and rock music fans to and from the SCG, Allianz Arena and the Moore Park Entertainment areas, are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the light rail system and should not be believed.

For example, the Australian Turf Club appears to be under the mistaken impression that the proposed light rail system can transport 12,000 people (ie 40 trams, each crammed with 100 seated and 200 standing racegoers) to or from the racecourse in an hour. See

In reality it can’t. Many buses will still be required.

(4) Likely passenger numbers:

According to a much-quoted but rather outdated report

“Around 7000 people use train/bus connections and catch UNSW Express buses from Central Railway station. Importantly, commuters are not the only user group on these services. Part-time students, part-time staff and visitors to both UNSW and the Randwick Health Complex, comprising the four hospitals, use these bus services.”

If one optimistically assumes that these passenger numbers have risen to, say, 10,000 per day in each direction during the ~30 week UNSW academic year, and that 75% of travelers will switch from the current Mercedes buses (where most passengers get a seat) to light rail (where most passengers would have to stand), one could predict about 3 million tram trips per annum.

Most of these travelers would be students with a 50% fare concession, and numbers – especially at peak hours – can be expected to fall rather than rise as broadband-based learning progressively reduces students’ needs to physically attend the UNSW campus.

Outside peak hours, most current Randwick and Kingsford buses are spectacularly empty for many hours of the day. If one optimistically assumes that 8 passengers travel on each of the proposed “every two minute” trams in each direction, ie another 500 passengers an hour or say 6000 passengers per day – this raises the total to around 5 million tram trips per annum.

The Australian Turf Club claims that “almost half a million people attend race days at Royal Randwick each year”. It is remotely possible, if unlikely, that the tram system will be able to handle up to 50% of these travelers, and a similar number of Moore Park patrons, raising the total to around 6 million tram trips per annum.

This estimated total of 6 million trips per annum within a 9km light rail system is remarkably high, but not absurd, by international standards. Recent US experience suggests that between 2 and 4 million trips per annum would be more common for a light rail system of this size. (see  et al)

(4) Cost per trip:

Assume (generously) that on average only 70% of these 6 million tram trips per annum involve student or other concessions.

Assume that everybody buys a ticket – which, from experience in Melbourne and overseas, is extremely unlikely on such multi-doored trams.

On this basis, trips would need to be priced at a minimum of $25 (full fare) or $12.50 (concession) for the proposed light rail system to recover costs of around $100 million per annum. Alternatively, the light rail system would need to be heavily subsidised by NSW taxpayers and/or by greatly increased fares on all competing bus routes.

Note 1 – Operating Costs

Ignoring the costs of the necessary dedicated light rail infrastructure, the incremental operating cost of a typical tram is between $150 and $450 per hour. This is easily Googled from numerous sources.

The long, heavy, battery-and-overhead-powered trams proposed for the Sydney Light Rail system are far from typical, but if one generously estimates that they will only cost $300 per hour and run for 15 hours per day, 7 days per week, operating costs will be around $1.5 million per tram per annum.

At least 40 trams will be required to provide an every-two-minute service on a network on which trams are estimated to take approximately 40 minutes to travel from end to end – ie 80 minutes for a “round trip” from Kingsford to Circular Quay. On this basis, direct operating costs for the SE Light Rail part of the system (excluding capital costs, depreciation, and the cost of maintaining the track, stations, electric power lines and other network infrastructure) are likely to total at least $45 million per annum.

(First published at May 2013)